development food technology

Drip irrigation for the 90%

Last year I wrote about an IFPRI report that outlined 11 technologies to feed the world in the coming decades. They’re all relatively straightforward things that, if widely adopted, would make a major difference to soil stewardship and food production.

One of the simplest on the list is drip irrigation, which is a system that delivers water straight to the base of plants through a system of hoses and nozzles. Because the irrigation happens at ground level or even underground, it’s evenly distributed and there’s far less evaporation. Much more of the water is used productively – unlike more traditional sprinkler systems, which blow a lot of water into the air.

You can also administer fertiliser through your drip irrigation system, making sure that it all goes to the plant rather than running off into watercourses. This saves money as well as helping to avoid nitrogen pollution and its effects on aquatic life.

Drip irrigation is particularly useful in arid parts of the world, and could be a key water-saving technology as the world adjusts to agriculture in the age of climate change. To truly be effective though, it has to be accessible. It has to be affordable to smallholder farmers in developing countries, in the places where it will be needed most. Until recently, it hasn’t been, until an engineer named Peter Frykman started looking at how to make it cheaper.

“Drip irrigation has been around for 50 years” he told Joel Bourne in The End of Plenty. “Why weren’t these small plot farmers using it? We discovered that it was not designed for them. It was too complicated, too expensive. We needed to redesign drip for the other 90% of the world’s farmers.”

Frykman developed a system with around a quarter of the number of parts, based on rolls of tubing rather than fixed pipes and nozzles. His Driptech system costs half as much as the traditional kind, bringing it within reach of household farmers.


“There are 600 million poor farmers who lack access to irrigation control who need a means to grow crops more efficiently” say Driptech. “Growing more crops is their only foreseeable way to climb out of poverty, and we are creating affordable products that can change their lives.”

As well as being an important innovation to help feed a growing global population, Driptech is also a nice example of intermediate technology, and of doing business at the bottom of the pyramid. There are more exciting technologies, I’ll give you that, but it’s things like this that could make all the difference in whether or not we can feed ourselves in 2050.

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